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Energy, Interior Nominees Caught in Budget Crossfire

Energy and Natural Resources hearing becomes forum on Trump budget cuts

Minnesota Sen. Al Franken expressed hope that one Energy Department nominee would be “a voice of reason and experience.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Minnesota Sen. Al Franken expressed hope that one Energy Department nominee would be “a voice of reason and experience.” (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Senators on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee used a Thursday confirmation hearing for a deputy Energy secretary and two other regulators to question elements of the Trump administration’s fiscal 2018 budget proposal.

The confirmation hearing for Dan Brouillette to be Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s deputy included questions from senators seeking clarity from the nominee about his views of some of the more controversial proposals in the Trump budget, including the plan to draw down by half the Strategic Petroleum Reserve.

The committee also considered two nominees to serve on the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which oversees oil and gas pipelines, the electric grid and electricity markets. The nominees are Neil Chatterjee, a senior energy adviser to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Robert Powelson, a member of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission and president of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners.

Their nominations are needed to return the five-member commission to an operating quorum.

Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska., preemptively implored senators in her opening statement not to hold up the nominations over concerns about the DOE budget request, noting that Brouillette was not involved with any of the decision-making.

“I don’t agree with everything in [the budget request], and questions about his views and priorities are certainly fair this morning, but it will not do us much good to try to hold Mr. Brouillette personally accountable for the budget proposal, or to try to delay his confirmation based on it,” Murkowski said.

She also expressed her support for all of the nominees during the hearing and in a statement afterward. Murkowski said she expects to schedule a vote on the nominees, along with the nomination of David Bernhardt to be Interior deputy secretary, the week of June 5, when the Senate returns from its Memorial Day recess.

In total, DOE under President Donald Trump’s budget would receive $28 billion, a reduction of $2.8 billion compared to the $30.8 billion enacted for the department in the fiscal 2017 omnibus. The proposed cut includes a 70 percent reduction for the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy program and a 17 percent reduction for the Office of Science, among other research areas.

“I want to make it clear I will oppose any attempts to close down [National Renewable Energy Laboratory] operations,” Sen. Cory Gardner, R-Colo., told Brouillette.

Added Sen. Angus King, I-Maine: “These cuts are absolutely unacceptable.”

Also included in the DOE budget request was a proposal to sell off approximately half of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve in order to raise $17 billion in the next 10 years — an issue of particular interest Murkowski.

Responding to a question from Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, about his thinking of the future of the SPR, Brouillette promised to continue conversations about the reserve.

“I can tell you as a general matter that I will stand by the federal law,” Brouillette said. “I think the SPR serves a valuable purpose, and I am open to better ‘mouse traps’ if you will. I’m not convinced that a single repository or a series repositories in a single location in this country is going to serve us well in certain moments or capacities.”

Sen. Al Franken, filling in as the panel’s top Democrat for an under-the-weather Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., noted that Energy Secretary Rick Perry did not adequately answer questions Franken posed during his confirmation process about media reports that the administration planned large-scale research cuts to the department, resulting in the Minnesota Democrat’s opposition to the nominee.

“If he is confirmed, I hope Mr. Brouillette will be a voice of experience and reason in the administration,” Franken said. “The deputy secretary needs to have the wisdom and courage to be an advocate for his department and its supported programs.”

Brouillette is the first DOE nominee to appear before the committee since Perry went through the confirmation process in February.

Before his nomination, Brouillette was vice president and head of public policy for insurance and financial services provider USAA. His previous energy experience includes a job as chief of staff for the House Energy and Commerce Committee, as well as serving as DOE assistant secretary for congressional and intergovernmental affairs from 2001 to 2003.

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